Almost to a man, the Buffalo Sabres felt that the time to clean out their lockers had come too soon this season. As they were packing their bags and holding their exit meetings on Sunday, other teams around the League were gearing up for another month of hockey.
Yet the disappointment of missing the postseason was met with an equal sense of optimism, and rightfully so.
"We didn’t reach our goal and so when the season is done this early, it's disappointing," alternate captain Josh Gorges said. "I think when you look at the whole picture of what went on this year, the steps that we took from the first 30, 40 games to how we played the last 30, 40 games was a drastic difference in teams and how we played and how we perceived the game.
"But ultimately we did fall short so that's the disappointing thing. We have a lot of time now to think about it and get ourselves in the right mindset to start next year."
Making the postseason was never going to be an easy task. They had a new coaching staff. They had nine newcomers in their lineup on opening night, two of whom began the season as teenagers. There was a learning curve, and injuries throughout the season certainly didn’t help.
While they may have come up short of their goal, all of those pieces began to click as the season wore on and the Sabres began to look like a playoff team. They finished with 81 points, a 29-point improvement from their last-place season a year ago, and earned 47 points in their final 41 games.
Stretch that second half-pace over a full season, and they'd be the third-place team in the Atlantic Division.
Buffalo’s points percentage improvement of .165 from a year ago is the second-best points percentage improvement in franchise history. The franchise record is a .237 improvement from 1971-72 (.327) to 1972-73 (.564).
"You see the team that we can be and we are at times, which makes it a little more frustrating too because you know it's there," captain Brian Gionta said. "Next year I think our focus needs to be coming out of camp a little better. With the coaching staff in place, with players coming back and with roles defined a little bit more, hopefully that can happen and then you can continue to build off of this year."
Having a full season under their belt will certainly bode well in that regard. Buffalo's top-four goal scorers this season were Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane – two rookies and two players who hadn’t worn a Sabres sweater prior to this season.
Eichel in particular showed dramatic growth over his first professional season. He recorded 16 points (9+7) in his first 34 games prior to Christmas, then came back from the holiday break and amassed 40 points (15+25) over his last 47 games. He averaged 0.85 points per game over that stretch.
"I think I started to get better as the season went on and hopefully I can take that next turn next year," Eichel said. "I think as a team we did a lot of good things and we definitely changed the culture of the Sabres. That's what we wanted to do this season … I think next season is the time to take the turn."
Changes are bound to occur between now and next season, but when asked about where he'd like to see the roster improved, O'Reilly expressed comfort with the group of players they have already. That confidence in the current group was another common sentiment in the Sabres' room on Sunday.
"I think we do have a bright future," O'Reilly said. "The young talent, it's there and if we decide to work together and still not be satisfied of anything and demand the best of ourselves, we're going to have success.
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: WHO'S IN AND WHO'S OUT
Of the players who were asked on Sunday, O'Reilly and Zemgus Girgensons were the only two who confirmed their participation in the 2016 IIHF World Championship, which will be held in Russia in May. Girgensons will play for Latvia, while O'Reilly will look to repeat as a gold medalist for Team Canada.
"It'll be great," O'Reilly said. "Last year was an awesome experience to win and going back again, it's always a great time. Team Canada is great with it. They put on a great experience for us. It'll be good, going back to Russia where I played for a bit. It's a different world over there, but it'll be exciting. It'll be good hockey."
Tyler Ennis was also a part of last year's Canadian team, but said he's unsure if he'll be invited back due to the limited amount of playing time he saw this season because of injury. Ennis has been out since Dec. 30 with a concussion, but did return to practice last week and says he feels great.
Rasmus Ristolainen and Hudson Fasching also confirmed their interest in participating for Team Finland and Team USA, respectively. Ristolainen has already been confirmed for Team Finland in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, which will be held in Toronto in September.
Eichel, meanwhile, said he intends to take the opportunity to rest rather than play for Team USA for the second-straight year. He's had limited opportunity to take a step back over the last calendar year. Going through the draft process immediately after last year's World Championship, he then participated in Development Camp in July and then launched into a rookie season in which he played 81 games.
"I think it's time for me to take a little break and unwind a little bit here and kind of take a deep breath for the first time in a while," Eichel said.
Of the Sabres' unrestricted free agents this offseason, Chad Johnson stands out due to the contributions he made as the starting goaltender in Robin Lehner's absence at various points of the season. Lehner, meanwhile, can begin working out again in two weeks as he recovers from a successful ankle surgery.
Johnson took full advantage of his first stint as a starter, posting a 22-16-4 record with a .920 save percentage and a 2.36 goals-against average. His teammates voted him as their Unsung Hero.
Johnson hopes to continue to be a starting goaltender next season if the opportunity presents itself. With Lehner still under contract for next season, Johnson spoke about his future on Sunday.
"For me, I think it's talk here first and then probably search if that's the case," he said. "I want to be relied upon and I hope it's here. I think everyone can see as a group how well this team can play and I hope I'm a part of that but again it's a part of the business. If it comes down to having to go somewhere else to get an opportunity to be the starter then it comes down to that, it's just a part of the game. But I do love it here."
The Sabres announced that the team has assigned forwards Evan Rodrigues and Cole Schneider, and goaltender Linus Ullmark to Rochester. Rodrigues and Schneider both played the last two games for Buffalo, with Rodrigues tallying his first two NHL points (1+1).
Ullmark started in net for the Sabres on Saturday, making 20 saves in the 4-3 overtime win against the New York Islanders. He finished his first NHL season at 9-10-2 in 20 appearances with a .913 save percentage and a 2.60 goals-against average.